Mike Isaac

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Welcome to CES: A Trade Show, Not a Tastemaker

las_vegas_welcomeThis week, most of the developed world will stagger halfheartedly back to the office, attempting to work after two weeks of twinkling lights, post-nog hangovers, and watching bad TV sprawled across couches inside the houses we grew up in.

Most, but not all. Once again, 150,000 members of the greater technology world will descend upon Las Vegas for the International CES, or what can only generously be described as a week of hell on earth.

It is a nonstop onslaught on the senses. Companies, journalists, vendors, distributors, start-ups, wannabes, has-beens and never-weres packed into 1.8 million square feet of convention center concrete, wares splayed across plastic booths waiting to be picked over and sneezed upon.

And all the rigamarole presupposes one major assumption: That any of this actually matters to you, the lovers of tech, the nerds — the consumers.

Does it? Is the supposed premier event of the tech industry really the place we’ll see all of the year’s coming trends and successes play out? Can anyone name one single thing they took away from last year’s CES, save a nasty case of show-floor SARS?

No, they cannot. And really, it’s not a place for the people to be dazzled by the next big thing. It is a trade show, like Comdex before it, and the still-running IFA before Comdex. It is a place for industry insiders across the entire chain — from designers to suppliers to manufacturers to distributors — to meet in one giant den of iniquity they call Vegas, hashing out what they hope and pray you’ll think will be this year’s “next big thing.”

And lately, the big guys attending CES don’t have the greatest track record of getting it right.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane. CES 2010 was heralded as the “Year of the Tablet PC!” Huzzah! Until, that is, 2011 came along, and brought with it the BlackBerry PlayBook, Lenovo’s IdeaPad and Toshiba’s Thrive prototype. Forget the failures of 2010 — 2011 would be when non-iPad tablets would really hit their stride.

“Garbage, the lot of them!” exclaimed the market, which responded by delivering record numbers in iPad sales, quarter after quarter. Was 2012, then, the actual year of the tablet, as myriad manufacturers pumped out Android tablets in every size and price imaginable?

pile_of_tabletsNope. Save for the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire (which really isn’t even a proper Android tablet, in the narrow sense), Android tablet sales are in the toilet. Even Nicholas Negroponte’s sub-$200 tablet from the One Laptop Per Child project died on the vine before the year was out.

Ultrabooks were supposed to be huge, of course, championed by Intel as the thing that would stem the massive losses in the PC industry (caused mostly by the decline and fall of the netbook). To date, Ultrabooks are far from huge.

Shall I bring up that whole 3-D TV fad? No, I shan’t.

And let’s not forget Nokia and Windows Phone. Both Microsoft and Nokia led the battle cry last year, championing Windows Phone software on Nokia hardware as the third viable alternative in the two-horse smartphone race. By some estimates, however, Nokia’s Windows Phones aren’t exactly flying off the shelves. And Microsoft isn’t giving out any hard numbers on the success (or lack thereof) of Windows Phone OS as a whole.

Now, I know it’s not fair to judge a trade show like CES entirely on its ability to predict the coming year’s successes and failures. Those exhibitors aren’t any more prescient than the Apples, Googles or Amazons of the world.

But that’s my point: CES is not a Magic 8 Ball. There are no oracles in attendance, letting the unwashed consumer masses peek into the future of tech.

CES is thousands of industry folks standing in front of a giant wall for a week, throwing armfuls of spaghetti and waiting to see what sticks over the next year.

Bon appetit, nerds.

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